The Politics of Piety

Charlotte Allen, author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus," co-edits the inkWell weblog for the Independent Women's Forum.

It’s a meme typically favored by liberal, Democratic-leaning pundits: Religion -- or rather, the public expression of religious belief in political life -- is dangerous to America. The idea’s propagators are usually talking specifically about President Bush, an unabashed Christian who lards his speeches with biblical allusions and once declared that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher.

In a column titled “Bush’s God” in this month’s American Prospect magazine, Robert Reich, secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, declares that religion is a graver threat to America than terrorism. Reich predicts that the great battle of the 21st century won’t be between terrorists and the West but between “those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority ... between those who believe in science, reason and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma.”

Reich isn’t the only one anxious about religion invading politics. Last year, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, complained that Bush was sending a secret message of solidarity to fellow Christians when he used the phrase “wonder-working power” -- taken from a Christian hymn -- in a sentence praising Americans’ faith and idealism in his State of the Union address. And in a review of several books on the president’s family for the current New Yorker magazine, David Greenberg contends that because the inspiration of God and the Bible “is purely personal or subjective, it’s not open to debate -- and decisions based on it become immune from scrutiny.” In other words, it’s downright undemocratic for the president to mention God in public.


There’s an obvious response to Greenberg’s argument: Given that we’ve got a presidential election in November, offering voters a chance to boot out the Bible-thumping president if they wish, where’s the threat to democracy?

But that’s beside the point, which is: Although the Constitution explicitly requires separation of church and state, most Americans don’t mind -- indeed many demand -- that their president not only honor religious faith, an American hallmark, but function in some sense as a religious leader. Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, who did not strike most observers as devout, carried his Bible to a Washington church nearly every Sunday morning while president. And Sen. John F. Kerry favorably mentions his Catholic faith, despite his opposition to his church’s moral teachings on abortion. It is safe to say that no one who possesses Reich’s level of hostility to religion is likely to be elected president soon.

This is not just “ceremonial deism,” the purely formalistic civil religion that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor discussed in her concurring opinion in the Pledge of Allegiance case. It is a genuine civil religion, lending credence to G.K. Chesterton’s observation that America “is a nation with the soul of a church.” About 83% of Americans define themselves as Christians, and nearly all believe in a deity. True, only 38% attend weekly religious services, according to an ABC News poll in 2002 -- but that’s startlingly high for a First World nation (and observers say it leaves out the millions who attend church, but less frequently).

Paradoxically, contends Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, America owes its high level of religious intensity to the separation of church and state. In contrast with Europe, with its fading government-supported churches, “We have a competitive religious economy here, where churches have to work to get members,” Stark says.

Not surprisingly, religion -- Christianity and Judaism, in particular -- fueled both the antislavery movement of the 19th century and the civil-rights movement of the 20th. The leaders of both movements didn’t hesitate to quote Scripture to remind their listeners that what they stood for was morally grounded in the Bible, as well as in secular philosophy. Religion was not only a “purely personal” matter but also one of grave public import.

That is as it should be. Religion, by nature, is a public thing, because it acknowledges a reality that is outside the private realm of the inner heart. Individuals’ faith and religious experiences are private matters, but religion itself, whether it be Wicca, Buddhism or Roman Catholicism, is shared and communal. Those who would banish religion to the realm of the strictly private in effect contend that religion has no relevance to public life. This notion fatally trivializes religion by treating it as essentially meaningless.

More important, religion recognizes there is inherent meaning, order and purpose in the universe. It thus induces humility, a recognition that our puny ideas about how things are and ought to be may not be the final word. The horror of 20th century totalitarianism was the insistence of atheistic, militantly secularist intellectuals, from Germany to Russia to China to Cuba, that they had a right to impose their pet utopian schemes at the point of a gun or threat of the gulag. Professing “allegiance ... to a higher authority,” as Reich puts it, is a check on such murderous egotism.

Most Americans believe that God orders the universe, and so they resonate to declarations that this is true. Ronald Reagan’s popularity rested in part on his religious faith. Many people who would never vote Democratic admired Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, Sen. Joe Lieberman, for his observant Orthodox Judaism. In politics, it never hurts to represent your constituents. So why shouldn’t Bush -- or Kerry, or any other politician or president -- declare openly the extent to which religious beliefs inform his positions and policies?

The problem isn’t really religious beliefs or religion per se, but the deep American cultural divide over moral issues -- abortion and gay marriage are the most contentious -- informed by religious beliefs, and that a sizable voting bloc, evangelical Christians, shares many of Bush’s beliefs. Bush’s religiosity frightens the Reichs of this world, not because it promises theocratic tyranny, but because it speaks to a specific world view shared by millions of other Americans. If Bush happened to invoke Jesus in the name of, say, abortion rights or nuclear disarmament, we would not be hearing lectures from intellectuals on the dangers of religion.

Religious people, certainly Christians, have over the centuries committed many a mortal wrong in the name of their faith. But those wrongs pale in comparison with the mountains of corpses generated by the two most ghastly 20th century experiments in turning governments over to irreligious intellectuals and social theorists -- Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union -- and their bloody epigones, some of which are still around today. There is some value to the humility inherent in deferring to something, or Someone, beyond yourself.